Access to Information through Libraries: A Public Good

The International Day for the Universal Access to Information is a great opportunity to celebrate and underline values which are at the heart of the work of libraries throughout the year.

As an enabler of better decision-making, the seizing of opportunities, and the transparency of government, this access is a key part of any drive to create societies made up of enabled, emancipated and autonomous individuals, all contributing in their own way to collective development.

Libraries are a key part of the infrastructure for access to information, through their connections, collections, and capacity-building.

Through providing low-or-no-cost internet access, they are a gateway to the internet for many, and even in the most highly connected societies play a valuable complement to home and mobile access.

Through access to curated collections of material, they can ensure people find the information they need, in particular helping to ensure that copyright does not serve to make access to knowledge the preserve of the wealthy.

Through providing training and support, they give people the confidence and skills to be effective and constructive information users.

Yet the coming months and years are likely to be difficult for libraries. Reduced economic activity, combined with a need to pay off debts incurred, may well see cuts to public and other spending that risk falling on our institutions.

Even in good times, there can be questions about where libraries ‘sit’ in government, or in other words, whose budget should be used to support them? Are they more about culture? Education? Research? Well-being? Through their support in providing access to information, libraries deliver in all of these areas and more, but usually, only one will need to pay.

With an economic crisis on the way, this blog therefore looks to explore to what extent economic concepts – public and common goods problems – can be used to understand this situation, and trace a way forwards, in order to make a reality of access to information for all.


Defining Terms

We talk about a public good when something is ‘non-excludable’ and ‘non-rivalrous’. ‘Non-excludable means that it is not possible to limit access in order to ensure that only those who pay for it can benefit from it.  Meanwhile, ‘non-rivalrous’ means that even when one person uses the good, this does not reduce what is available to others.

Examples include, arguably, knowledge itself as well as services such as street-lighting or public infrastructure. There is always the risk of the ‘free rider’ problem, with people able to use a good or service without paying for it, leading to a risk of under-investment. In the case of knowledge, for example, tools such as intellectual property are used to ‘exclude’ artificially, and so allow for the creation of a market.

Meanwhile, a common good one that is is non-excludable, but is rivalrous. People can access them without needing to pay, and moreover in doing so, deprive others of the possibility to do so. Examples here could be fish-stocks or forests. There is always the risk that people will try to exploit this to the maximum, bringing the risk of leaving none for anyone else, and indeed, causing long-term damage – the ‘tragedy of the commons’.

Managing common goods can either require central controls, or norms and behaviours within communities which set limits on use for any individual.


Where does library funding fit into this?

For the purposes of this blog, we can consider that the users of libraries are not just individuals, but different parts of government. This is because, in providing services to users, libraries are helping  different parts of government to achieve their policy goals .

For example, beyond culture and education, libraries have a proven record of supporting public health, helping people to access key information and online services. This is a positive result for health ministries and agencies, who then see lower levels of disease, and reduced pressure on hospitals and general practitioners.

There is also evidence of libraries playing a role in helping people who are looking for work. From providing the internet access necessary to find jobs and the computers needed to write CVs, to more hands-on support in developing skills and confidence, libraries are effectively making the work of employment ministries or agencies easier. Indeed, there are stories in many places of jobcentres explicitly telling people to go to the library to get help.

A final example: libraries have a particularly important role in helping people who are at greatest risk of marginalisation to get online, find programmes, or even deliver support directly within the institution. People facing homelessness, isolation, or inequality can, in this way, find opportunities to improve their lives. This is a positive outcome for social affairs ministries or departments, whose success is measured in terms of people helped off the streets and back into jobs and communities.

In each of these cases, by ‘using’ libraries, other departments and ministries benefit. And of course, given that libraries work to be open and available for all, there is no question of ‘excluding’ people using the library for any particular purpose.

There is perhaps a more open question about whether library services are rivalrous or non-rivalrous. Clearly, staff time, computers, or books for lending for example, are not finite. If they are being used by one person, they cannot necessarily be used by another. Other aspects of library services are less rivalrous, for example WiFi, as long as the connection is good enough, or access to displays or information within the library.

This places libraries and the access to information they provide – vis-à-vis their ‘customers’ across government – somewhere between a public and a common good.


The Risks and the Possibilities

As highlighted earlier, public good or common good status bring challenges that can require intervention.

Certainly, there is the chance of a free-rider problem, with policy-makers across government benefitting from services that are only paid by one department (or which depend on local funding).

Of course, when someone is able to access a health resource or find a job through a library, it seems harsh to talk about ‘free riding’. Nonetheless, it is  important to ensure that there is recognition by other agencies, departments or ministries of what they gain from libraries.

Even if they are not willing or able to support libraries for the services they offer, they should be made to understand their interest in defending libraries at what is likely to be a difficult time in the coming months and years. There are already great examples of this, for example the work done in the UK to show how much money libraries are saving the health service.

As for the tragedy of the commons, this can also strike. For example, if every government agency sends people onto the library to use the internet or printers, there is a risk of saturation of library resources very quickly, with fewer terminals or lower levels of staff support available than are needed. If levels of service need to be cut in response, this can even make it harder for libraries to justify support, given perceptions of reduced value for any individual user.

The answer here must be to try and ensure that libraries are integrated into wider policy planning, in order to identify where there is a risk of demand being greater than what libraries can manage. Ideally, an explicit recognition of libraries’ role could lead to increased funding and support in order to deliver.

Linked to this is the value of libraires building up a wider range of partnerships with actors across government. Again, we do see such connections in some situations, with libraries fulfilling their potential as partners and platforms for other services. Formalising relations can help reinforce these links, and further strengthen the range of people and institutions who are likely to speak up in favour of libraries in future, as well, of course, as avoiding the saturation of library services.


In conclusion, building an understanding of the risk that funding for libraries (and the access to information they provide) can be subject to the public and common goods problems can be a useful advocacy goal.

We need to avoid situations where parts of government which benefit so strongly from the work of libraries in providing access only realise how important our institutions are too late. Making use of the International Day for the Universal Access to Information on 28 September to build understanding of the importance of access, and moving towards more formalised relations with partners, offer just two possibilities for doing so.